Bookmark and Share

He was conceived by the work of the Holy Spirit

Catechesis by Papa Benedict XVI      
in Arabic, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear brothers and sisters,
The Nativity of the Lord once again with his light illuminates the darkness that often envelops our world and our hearts, and brings hope and joy. Where does this light come from? From the grotto at Bethlehem, where the shepherds found “Mary and Joseph and the babe, lying in a manger” (Lk 2:16). Before this Holy Family,
another, deeper question arises: how can this small and frail Child have brought such a radical newness into the world as to have changed the course of history? Is there not perhaps something mysterious about his origin which goes beyond that grotto?

Again and again the question of Jesus’ origin recurs, the same one that the Procurator Pontius Pilate asked during the trial: “Where are you from?” (Jn 19:9). Yet his origin is very clear. In the Gospel of John, when the Lord affirms: “I am the bread which came down from heaven”, the Jews react murmuring: “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? How then can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (Jn 6:41, 42). And, a little later, the citizens of Jerusalem are strongly opposed to Jesus’ claim of Messiahship, asserting that they know well “from whence this man comes; whereas Christ, when he comes, no one will know where he is from” (Jn 7:27). Jesus himself points out how inadequate is their claim to know his origin, and with this he offers already a guideline to knowing from whence he comes: “I have not come of my own accord, but the one who sent me, whom you do not know, is true” (Jn 7:28). Of course, Jesus was from Nazareth, he was born in Bethlehem, but what is known of his true origin?

In the four Gospels, the answer to the question 'from whence' Jesus comes clearly emerges: his true origin is the Father, God; He comes totally from Him, but in a different way from any prophet or man sent by God who preceded Him. This origin in the mystery of God, “whom no one knows”, is already contained in the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, that we are reading in this Christmas season. The angel Gabriel announces: “The Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore he to be born will be holy and will be called the Son of God” (Lk 1:35). We repeat these words every time we recite the Creed, the Profession of faith: “et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto, ex Maria Virgine”, “and by the power of Holy Spirit became incarnate of the Virgin Mary”. At this sentence we kneel because the veil that hid God is, as it were, lifted and his unfathomable and inaccessible mystery touches us: God becomes the Emmanuel, “God with us”. When we hear the Masses composed by the great masters of sacred music, I think for example of Mozart’s Coronation Mass, we immediately notice how they pause in a particular way on this phrase, as if to try to express in the universal language of music that which words cannot convey: the great mystery of God who becomes incarnate, who is made man.

If we carefully consider the expression: “through the work of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary”, we find that it includes four subjects that interact. The Holy Spirit and Mary are mentioned explicitly, but it is understood “He”, that is the Son, became flesh in the womb of the Virgin. In the Profession of faith, the Creed, Jesus is referred to by different names: “Lord... Christ, only-begotten Son of God... God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God... consubstantial with the Father” (Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed). We see then that “He” refers to another person, that of the Father. The first subject of this sentence is therefore the Father who, with the Son and the Holy Spirit, is the one God.

This affirmation of the Creed is not about the eternal being of God, but rather speaks to us of an action which takes part in the three divine Persons and which is realised “ex Maria Virgine”. Without her, the entry of God into the history of humanity would not have come to its end and that which is central to our Profession of faith would not have taken place: God is a God with us. Thus Mary belongs in any essential way to our faith in the God who acts, who enters into history. She offers her whole person to God, she “agrees” to become the dwelling place of God.

Sometimes, even on the pathway and in the life of faith we can sense our poverty, our inadequacy in the face of the witness to offer to the world. But God chose a humble woman, in an unknown village, in one of the most distant provinces of the great Roman Empire. We must always trust in God, even in the midst of the most gruelling difficulties to face, renewing our faith in his presence and action in our history, like in that of Mary. Nothing is impossible to God! With Him our existence always walks on safe ground and is open to a future of firm hope.

In professing in the Creed: “by the work of the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary”, we affirm that the Holy Spirit, as the power of the Most High God, has worked the conception of the Son of God in a mysterious way in the Virgin Mary. The Evangelist Luke records the words of archangel Gabriel: “The Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (1:35). Two references are obvious: the first is to the time of creation. At the beginning of the Book of Genesis we read that “the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (1:2); this is the Creator Spirit who gave life to all things and to the human being. What is brought about in Mary, through the action of this same divine Spirit, is a new creation: God, who called being from nothing, by the Incarnation gives life to a new beginning of humanity. The Fathers of the Church often speak of Christ as the new Adam, so as to underline the beginning of the new creation with the birth of the Son of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary. This makes us think about how faith also brings about in us a newness so strong that it produces a second birth. In fact, at the beginning of our life as Christians is Baptism which makes us born again as children of God, makes us participate in the filial relationship that Jesus has with the Father. And I would like to point out that Baptism is received, we “are baptized” — it is passive — because no one is capable of becoming a son of God on his own: it is a gift that is freely given. St Paul recalls this adoptive sonship of Christians in a central passage of his Letter to the Romans, where he writes: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit which renders you adoptive sons, through whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself, together with our spirit, attests that we are children of God” (Rom 8:14-16), not slaves. Only if we open ourselves to the action of God, like Mary, only if we entrust our life to the Lord as to a friend in whom we totally trust, will everything change, will our whole life acquire a new meaning and a new aspect: that of the children of a Father who loves us and never abandons us.

We have spoken about two elements: the first element, the Spirit moving on the the water, the Creator Spirit: there is another element in the words of the Annunciation.

The angel says to Mary: “The power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow”. This is a recall to the holy cloud which, in the pathway of the exodus, stopped over the tent of meeting, over the ark of the covenant, that the people of Israel were carrying with them, and that indicated the presence of God (cf Ex 40:34-38). Mary, therefore, is the new holy tent, the new ark of the covenant: with her “yes” to the words of the archangel, God receives a dwelling place in this world, He whom the universe cannot contain comes to dwell in the womb of a virgin.

So let us return to the question with which we begun, the one about the origin of Jesus, synthesized by Pilate’s question: “Where are you from?” From our reflections it appears clear, right from the beginning of the Gospels, what the true origin of Jesus is: He is the Only-Begotten Son of the Father, He comes from God. We are before the great and disconcerting mystery which we celebrate in this time of Christmas: the Son of God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, was incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary. This is an announcement that rings out ever new and  that in itself brings hope and joy to our hearts, because each time it gives us the certainty that, even though we often feel weak, poor, incapable in the face of the difficulties and evil of the world, the power of God acts always and works wonders in weakness itself. His grace is our strength (cf 2 Cor 12:9-10). Thank you."

BXVI - General Audience, Wednesday, 2 January 2013, Paul VI Hall